by Raju Peddada
"...deciphering the messages which objects communicate across time -- messages about people and places, environments and interactions, about different moments in history and about our own time as we reflect upon it. These signals from the past -- some reliable, some conjectural, many still to be retrieved -- are unlike other evidence we are likely to encounter. They speak of whole societies and complex processes rather than individual events, and tell of the world for which they are made, as well as of the later periods which reshaped or relocated them, sometimes having meanings far beyond the intention of their original makers. It is the things humanity has made, these meticulously shaped sources of history and their often curious journeys across centuries..."
—Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, in his book A History of the World in 100 Objects.
(Swans - July 16, 2012) The Americans, in the mid 19th century, were in the vortex of a bloody, inexorable transformation. Steam power was three decades old, and the motorized vehicle was still a faint dream. The Industrial Revolution was running its course with the gilded palaces of the industrial elite: the robber barons, the monopolists, the land grabbers, the Wall Street speculators, the mineral prospectors, and the ultimate exploiter, the plantation owners. The age of the plantation owner had expired; only their denials and clinging had become tenuous, till a storm blew them away. The inventors dragged in modernity on their backs, introducing the concept of obsolescence to the new world, built on consumption.
The plantation owners of the South were the first people dependent on a system of exploitation that continued to illicitly benefit them as the "original claimants" of entitlements: the fruits of others' labor. This was a paradox -- this system of antiquated exploitation was replaced with a newer kind that could not coexist with the implacable cycle of consumption and obsolescence; hence, it had to go, and go it did, at the expense of about six hundred thousand-plus Americans from 1861 to 1865. And one of the pivotal Americans who "facilitated, and speeded up" this change was Ulysses Simpson Grant of Galena, Illinois, the commanding general of the Union Armies later during the Civil War who, upon his return from the war, was gifted with a beautiful house on the hill by the grateful town folk, and from where he left for the White House when he was elected president in November of 1868.
The years of transformation were recorded at every stage by the pioneering and persevering photographers with their new unwieldy cameras, who went everywhere, processing the nation's history in tintypes. Tintypes, invented in 1856 by Hamilton L. Smith, used the same wet collodion process that was involved in making Ambrotypes. Instead of being printed on glass as Ambrotypes were, tintypes were printed on blackened iron. Multiple exposures could be taken on a single plate and later cut apart. Tintypes were more durable than Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes.
There are several towns across the U.S. that are time capsules of the 19th century, in the red colonial architectural vernacular. Galena is one such place, in northwestern Illinois, in the Mississippi River Valley. There, several days ago, I went looking for history... objects left behind after their previous owners had vanished. Among the kitschy shops full of trinkets and fake antiques was this place called La Belle Epoque, essentially a junk shop run by a mild-mannered romanticist called Buzz. The shop window on the street was nothing special, it was a chaotic spread with old fly-fishing baskets, 18th century wooden washboards, bowling pins, Shaker chairs, books, cameras, and other antique objects with that seductive patina of distress, stacked in an unkempt and dysfunctional manner. This window probably looked the same ten years ago. Nevertheless, it hypnotized me. There was this inexplicable potential -- a suspense about it.
Once inside the store, the antediluvian smell -- an odor of extinction -- the past, and the distressed appearance, evoked moving images of people who had died long ago. What is more leaden with pathos than scrapbooks, rangefinder cameras, waist watches... and letters with their covers, postcards, and, tintype photographs. Indeed, photographs of people on those exposed metal plates, about 3x4 inches, looking more like metallic Polaroids from the 1850s. These pictures were rich in their careworn, sepia-gray photographic emulsion, mildewed, scratched, dented and bent, with frayed edges that had been handled and passed on and on for close to seven generations, and finally discarded after all who cared were dead. They were haunting. Their eyes stared directly at me, and through me, as if seeing through my evanescence, into an uncertain future, in a somber, almost in lugubrious manner.
I froze, peering at one peculiar and piercing picture. I heard a voice: "I am no different than you are... with loved ones, same hardships... all headed for oblivion..." I experienced chills, the hair on my nape bristled up, when suddenly, I heard Buzz, the shop owner, almost shouting: "Do you know why they are looking at us like that?" I mumbled something incoherent, still affected "... it took a long time for the photographer to set the camera... the flash... the folks sat before the camera a long time, losing all their humor... turning somber like in a funeral, with their black outfits." I kept scrutinizing, face after face... then it clicked. I was not looking at some strange faces on tintypes, but into the eyes of the nation's history, at the bloodiest time, since its inception.
Who were they? Why were they discarded... didn't they have any descendents to treasure them? It was quite ironic that these people in the pictures, as I imagine, were happy-go-lucky folks with their fleeting lives, only to be made permanent by some pioneering photographer excising all their lively humor in those interminable moments before the flash. It was as if fate was punishing them with immortality, confiscating their frolicking anonymity. I could hear, in their penetrating looks, something like "We don't want this permanence... release us from this exportation into another time." To me it wasn't just a face, it was cryptographic telepathy that conveyed a compressed energy of a life lived, in a myriad details; the trials, and the elation this person had experienced, that only a fecund imagination is allowed to coalesce -- it can be a curse too. These strange cryptic countenances, from a bygone era, were simply telling.
After I had recovered from the tintypes, I reluctantly moved on to another corner of the store, where I found a stack of old postcards and letters with their first-day covers. Another stack of poignant personal memorabilia from the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Handwritten addresses, some typed on manual typewriters, and a few letters from folks that were done writing long ago. Cursive writing was the art of the day, and it was evident on those covers with finely engraved and canceled US stamps. These blemished first-day covers were a blend of history and art beyond their functionality. They were priceless for their stamps alone, so I exchanged several Ulysses S. Grants for the whole lot.
Here is this plain and innocent letter in cursive from "Effie" to "Gertie" from 1937: Addressed to Gertie as Mrs. Henry Grimm of Galena. Effie lived in Chicago, but there was no return address. The postal cancellation said: "CHICAGO-DEC 22-9PM-1937-ILL"
My dear Gertie
Received your note this a.m and was truly sorry you couldn't come on at this time, and am also sorry we wont be with you in Galena for Christmas. Like Henry Ben is still busy with his nets. He is trying to finish the leather basket ball nets for the Board of Education and is working day and night for they have to be in by Jan. 1. He sent down a lot last week - more will go tomorrow and next week effects to finish the order and then the orders will all be completed and we will have to wait for new business to come in.
I am glad to know Hattie is able to be home for Christmas and hope her eyes will be all right again.
This is just going to be a note for Bary is waiting to take it to the mail box - so wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Bright & Prosperous New year - will say good night.
This is by no means an important letter, but that is what makes it infinitely special. It is a tiny slice of intimacy between two women in the Midwest about 75 years ago that opens up the vistas on their lives; two women who probably grew up together. I couldn't find who Effie was, but Gertie was Gertrude Grimm, the wife of Henry Grimm, a prominent businessman who owned a launch and took Mississippi River cruises with his family: daughter Alice, (whom Effie referred to as "Hattie" in the letter) and son Edward. Both father and son were the owners-editors of the Galena Gazette. All are deceased. The letter wields a palpable, yet dense potency in triggering the whole of 1937, as the holographic drama of their lives, which, from the letter, appeared rather tranquil in contrast to the worldly events that year.
- The Great Depression: by the spring of 1937, production, profits and wages had regained 1929 levels.
- FDR was sworn in for his second term, and immediately launched a campaign against monopolists.
- Amelia Earhart vanishes in the Pacific; Howard Hughes sets flight record from LA to NYC in 7 hours.
- Spanish Civil War starts May 7th. Check out Paul Preston's 2012 The Spanish Holocaust.
- Coronation of King George VI; and, Neville Chamberlain becomes the PM in UK. Oops!
- San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge opens for business -- FDR pushes the button from his office.
- First total solar eclipse in 800 years, lasting 7 minutes -- the sun disappears during the day.
- Hong Kong Typhoon kills 11,000 in September.
- Abraham Lincoln's head is dedicated at Mount Rushmore.
- First editions of The Hobbit by Tolken and To Have and Have Not by Hemingway published.
Another interesting cover was that which was addressed to Mr. R. L. Moore of Germantown, Philadelphia, in 1938. Mr. Moore happened to be a great mathematical pedagogue from the University of Pennsylvania. I found several websites honoring him. Here is a panegyric on him (PDF).
The forty-odd stamped first-day covers were beautiful in their distressed state -- abandoned, to be sold off in a curiosity shop. This is indeed the crypto-subtext on our delicate existence: even a thin paper has more shelf life and longevity than us. There were several names like Paul Ingwersen, an honored WWI veteran, who was born on August 8th, 1889, and passed away on September 22, 1980. Survived by a son, two daughters, 14 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren. Why is this first-day cover, addressed to Paul Ingwersen, not in the hands of one of his descendents? And there are many. We have, over the centuries, become creatures obsessed with material possessions, just for the sake of possessing. But I feel richer, unequivocally fulfilled, by being able to have something intangible: someone's experience, from 150 years ago -- the interminable moments before the camera, stiffening up, slowly in contemplation to become grim; or those small moments of pleasure that someone had had in sitting and holding the paper down with one hand, while writing the letter with the other, and that moment, embedded in the letter, crosses the time-spatial dimension to give me the same pleasure, eight-score years later, connecting me to that writer. As far as I am concerned, that gray emulsion on the tintypes, with the somber witnesses of history, was blood. Indeed, the history of America in the mid 19th century was processed in blood, and I had taken possession of a small part of that priceless cultural history, ironically, by exchanging several Ulysses S. Grants. I live to enjoy the inscrutable, the serendipitous, yet indispensable poetry in things.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)